Updated: May 16
Written by Katy Flammia
When we bought our 50’s era ranch house in Claverack, we took out the oil furnace and replaced it with cold climate heat pumps, simple devices that provide efficient heating and cooling. We also installed a 40-gallon electric heat pump water heater.
Heating technology has been steadily evolving over the past century. We once heated primarily with wood, then coal, then oil and now gas. Each kind of heating had its costs and its benefits, and the transitions didn’t happen overnight. The heat pump, which uses electricity is quiet, clean, and efficient, is a real innovation in heating technology.
Fossil fuels burned inside our homes are the biggest source of planet warming emissions, and New York state’s climate plan recommends a transition off fossil fuel heating (methane gas, propane, and oil) to efficient electric heating for new construction and retrofitting older homes.
What is a heat pump and how does it work? You might be surprised to learn you already have one. The heat pump inside of your refrigerator is what keeps the food cold. Inside every heat pump is an enclosed loop that contains a refrigerant chemical, an evaporator, and a condenser. When the refrigerant evaporates it absorbs heat, when it condenses and gives off heat. Because the heat pump is moving heat, not creating it, very high efficiencies can be achieved.
There are two general categories of heat pumps used for home heating. One is air source heat pumps, which extract heat from the outdoor air. The other is ground source heat pumps that extract heat from the ground. Air source heat pumps are generally cheaper to install, but more expensive to operate than ground source heat pumps. We installed air source heat pumps.
There are cold climate air source heat pumps that are widely available and are efficient down to 5oF and operate down to -19oF. To be honest, the ones we put in several years ago did struggle when it got down to 5oF this winter, but we also discovered, somewhat embarrassingly, that simply cleaning the filters went a long way to making them produce adequate heat, even during those single digit days.
We have found our heat pumps produce an extremely comfortable heat. Unlike forced hot air, which blows hot air until it reaches the right temperature and then turns off until it gets cold, repeating the cycle, the fan of the heat pump works at a constant, fairly low, velocity keeping the heat very even.
Ground source heat pumps (also known as geothermal heating) are more expensive to install because it is labor intensive to put a heat exchange loop into the ground or body of water such as a pond. The good news is that’s a one-time expense which will last a lifetime. These systems are the most efficient, low maintenance and long lasting.
Ground source heat pumps maintain very high efficiency regardless of outdoor temperature because the ground below the frost line stays the same temperature, about 50oF, year-round. In Columbia County, which is in climate zone 5, both kinds of heat pumps should perform well so long as your home is adequately insulated. That is the other thing we did when we bought our house; we super insulated and installed all new triple-paned windows. We have never lived in a more comfortable draft free house.
In new buildings, heat pumps are easily the most cost-effective choice. For existing homes, utility rebates and federal tax credits make heat pumps cost competitive with fossil fuel heating systems. Make sure you select a NYSERDA certified installer, or you will lose out on the rebates!
Low-to-moderate income households are eligible for NYSERDA grants that cover most or all the cost of a new heat pump. Heat pumps can pay for themselves by lowering heating bills. Because we also have solar panels, our house is well insulated and the heat pumps are so efficient, we actually don’t have a heating or air conditioning bill.
Here in Columbia County where more than two thirds of households still heat with oil or propane, heat pumps pose dramatic cost savings in heating cost. As heat pumps become standard equipment the upfront price is projected to come down even further.
How do they look?
Here’s a photo of the outdoor compressor hidden behind a hydrangea bush. The other compressor we just put a nice cover over that lets the air circulate but masks the unit.
Inside you can also put a cover over them but they work better if they are open. Ours is hard to see behind the beam. You need to leave space for the cover to open and air to circulate.
New York’s existing electric grid has excess capacity in the winter and that is projected to continue to be the case until at least 2035. The NYS Climate Plan calls for adding renewable electricity generation, transmission, and storage.
To learn more about heat pumps and find out what incentives you are eligible for, you can contact the Capital District clean energy hub at: firstname.lastname@example.org. To find a qualified contractor go to cleanheat.ny.gov.